A journey into the wasteland of a serial killer’s mind & the possibility of forgiveness in Seven Siblings’ chilling, heartbreaking Frozen

Scott McCulloch, Nancy McAlear & Madryn McCabe. 


Is it possible to forgive a man who has murdered a child? The stuff of every parent’s nightmare becomes an opportunity for reconciliation and forgiveness as a forensic psychologist offers her thesis on the minds serial killers in Seven Siblings Theatre’s compelling, moving production of Bryony Lavery’s Frozen. Directed by Will King, Frozen opened last night at the b current Studio Theatre at Artscape Wychwood Barns.

American forensic psychologist Agnetha (Madryn McCabe)—who has a fear of flying and some emotional turmoil of her own to deal with—is on her way to London, England to give a lecture on her thesis and interview a new subject: serial killer Ralph (Scott McCulloch). We also meet Nancy (Nancy McAlear), a mother whose 10-year-old daughter Rhona went missing on her way to her grandmother’s over 20 years ago.

Shifting into the past and returning to the present, we learn the details of Rhona’s disappearance. Nancy’s sullen teenage daughter Ingrid refuses to go to her grandmother’s, as it involves gardening work, so Nancy sends Rhona instead. Ralph sees an opportunity and takes it. As these flashbacks include both Nancy and Ralph’s points of view, we get devastating and alarming accounts of the events that led to the loss of this loved girl.

Agnetha, along with neuroscientist colleague David (voice-over by Jim Armstrong), has collected evidence that suggests abuse, neglect and brain trauma permanently alter the brain structures of serial killers, rendering them unable to control their actions. And, as these people—mostly men—are ill, and not evil monsters, can we not therefore forgive them?

In the early years following Rhona’s disappearance, Nancy throws herself into activism work with an organization dedicated to finding missing children and reuniting them with their families. Living in hope and denial, she believes in her heart that Rhona is still alive. Her hopes are dashed when she learns that police have taken Ralph into custody for the attempted abduction of a girl; his tattoos betray his whereabouts on the dates and locations of other missing girls. Rhona’s remains are found, along with those of other victims and his collection of child porn videos, in his shed—in Nancy’s neighbourhood, close to home. Bringing Nancy, Agnetha and Ralph together, the tragedy of Rhona’s abduction and murder becomes a catalyst for personal journey and self-discovery—with unexpected and startling results.

Cerebral, visceral and spiritual, it’s a challenging piece for the ensemble, to say the least—and this cast rises to the occasion with layered, nuanced and compelling performances. McCabe is strikingly professional, deeply vulnerable and tender as Agnetha. Struggling to keep it together as she continues the work that she and David started, Agnetha must keep her own internal conflicts under control as she interviews Ralph and assesses whether it’s wise to allow Nancy to visit him. McAlear is a heartbreaking, determined warrior mother as Nancy. The glue that keeps her family together, Nancy must not only come to terms with the fact that Rhona isn’t coming back, but accept the long-term impacts on her family as each member grows up and even apart from her. And as something shifts in her own heart and mind, what will she say when she sees Ralph? McCulloch is both chilling and gruffly charming as Ralph; a master manipulator and liar, Ralph is disturbingly nonchalant about his proclivities and hunting habits. Forced to turn inward during his meetings with Agnetha, who’s told him that he can’t help himself due to his traumatic childhood and brain injury, what will he find?

Frozen in time, with only her bones left behind, Rhona reaches out to each of these characters. Can Agnetha and Nancy move on from their devastating losses? Frozen in a mind that dictates deviant desires and behaviour, can Ralph understand the hurtful impact of, and feel remorse for, what he’s done? Can we distinguish evil from illness—and what will we do with that understanding?

Heartbreaking, chilling and peppered with dark humour—and provocative in Agnetha’s thesis of the possibility of forgiveness for a serial killer—Frozen is an emotionally and intellectually turbulent ride. Staged with minimal set pieces—cubes that are stacked and moved with precision to create the space—with live sound by director King, Seven Siblings’ Frozen is both uncomfortable and revealing in its intimacy. Try as we may, we can’t look away.

Frozen continues in the b current Studio Theatre until June 3; advance tickets available online—a good idea given the limited seating in this intimate venue.


Riveting, jarringly honest & moving – EN(LIVE)N Productions’ Frozen

Last night, I saw the final preview performance of EN(LIVE)N Productions’ run of Bryony Lavery’s Frozen, directed by Andrew Freund, at The Box Toronto – and it was a gripping, poignant and thought-provoking trip.

The stage is set with seating for the audience along the length of the intimate space, on both sides, and throughout the centre. Actor Alexander Saridag, who we see later as the prison guard, suggests seating as people enter. Hanging from the lighting grid are various items, some of which are props and others denoting a specific place: children’s toys, family photographs, personal items from a purse or briefcase, glass wind chimes with mini bottles of booze attached, a micro audio recorder and tapes, videotapes carefully sealed in clear plastic bags, two rope nooses. There is an eerie, low-volume soundtrack playing in the background. A howling wind? Screeching children? Playing? Terrified? The other three actors pace the space. All creating a sense of anxious, curiosity-filled anticipation.

As Freund points out in his program notes, Frozen is a memory play. Through a series of monologues, during which the actors often speak directly to the audience, as well as two-hander scenes, we follow the lives and thoughts of three people. Agnetha (Lynn Zeelenberg) is an American academic, studying serial killers using both psychological and neurological examination; Nancy (Lavetta Griffin) is a British mother who’s dealing with the trauma of a missing 10-year-old daughter; and Ralph (Peter Nelson), also a Brit, a rough and snake-like charming loner with troubling sexual proclivities.
Each character is compelling in his/her own way – and performed with jarring honesty and great respect by a fine cast. Zeelenberg does an excellent job of juggling Agnetha’s conflicting emotions; an academic struggling with her own loss and sins even as she studies and lectures on one of the most reviled criminal types imaginable. And her scenes with Ralph are layered with a tense curiosity, a driven sense of exploration, and a touching, nurturing quality. Griffin does a lovely job as Nancy, going from put-upon housewife and mother, to living the emotional turmoil of the loss of her youngest daughter, to crusading activist. Like Agnetha, Nancy is also seeking answers – and, even more so, closure. Nelson is both mesmerizing and repulsive as Ralph, who has a certain bizarre logic to his perversity – a method to his madness. Ralph is unable to forge true human connections, and Nelson does a beautiful job of revealing Ralph’s humanity as he responds to the women’s attempts to connect, both intellectually and emotionally, with a combination of boyish confusion, longing and repulsion. Nice work from Saridag, doing multiple duty as our host/usher, set and props valet, and the silent but expressive Guard.

With shouts to the design team: Natalia Tcherniak (set), Claire McMillan (costumes), Eric Sullivan (lighting) and Dave Fitzpatrick (sound and photography).

Riveting, moving and gut-wrenchingly real – relieved with snatches of dark humour and the foibles of everyday life – Frozen holds no punches in its intense examination of memory, loss, sex crime and forgiveness.

EN(LIVE)N Productions’ Frozen opens tonight (April 5) and continues until April 20 at The Box Toronto. Tickets are $20 and available online. Go see this.

Production stills by David A. (aka Dave) Fitzpatrick:

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Beautiful, raw, vulnerable & erotic – Nightwood & Seventh Stage’s Stockholm

Out in the lobby of the Tarragon Theatre before seeing Stockholm last night, I was chatting with a couple who were going to see The Real World? in the main space – and when I mentioned that I was going to see Stockholm, they wondered if the title referred to the capital of Sweden or the syndrome. In this case, it’s both.

The Nightwood Theatre/Seventh Stage Theatre co-production of Bryony Lavery’s play Stockholm, directed by Seventh Stage A.D. Kelly Straughan (formerly the Assoc. A.D. at Nightwood), is currently running in the Tarragon Extra Space.

Lindsay C. Walker’s set gives us an initial glimpse at the life of Todd and Kali. The ultra modern kitchen is pristine white and perfectly symmetrical except for the narrow white stairway to nowhere stage left (in the action of the play, leading to the attic). The pre-show music, designed by Verne Good with some original composition as well, is a mix of industrial and pre-fab jazz – the kind of music that you’d hear in the background at the latest hot spot resto.

When the house lights go down and the stage lights come up (design by Kimberly Purtell), both light and sound are disorienting, a focused glare and cacophony of voices, tinny and alien, as Todd emerges. He’s lost his wife Kali after they left the movie theatre. Throughout the play, Todd and Kali speak of themselves – and their relationship – in the third person, narrating their lives with a cool cinematic, and somewhat smug, detachment. Their life together is perfect: they are taking in the entire Ingmar Bergman canon, they have booked a trip to Stockholm and today is Todd’s birthday, and the celebration will be culminating in a quiet, romantic dinner at home that Todd will cook himself, complete with two bottles of expensive champagne, which Kali has purchased as a surprise.

The first sign that there are problems in the Garden of Eden is the discovery of a letter for Todd from his mother – Kali does not hide her disdain for the woman and thus begins her slow boil. Both harbour extreme feelings of vulnerability and self-doubt, emerging in brief monologue-like moments outside the present action: Todd (Jonathon Young, who Sanctuary fans will recognize as Nikola Tesla) feeling pressure to make things perfect and happy, and Kali (Melissa-Jane Shaw) madly in love but grappling with a deep jealousy of Todd’s exes  – “retro jealousy” Todd calls it – their pain expressed physically, as well as in the text.

What is remarkable about the staging of this production is the use of choreographed movement (courtesy of choreographer Susie Burpee), wordlessly presenting the exact tone and emotion of the moment – from playfully putting groceries away in perfect synchronous union to the re-enactment of their first meeting to sex, where the movement becomes primal, raw and erotic. And fight director Casey Hudecki (who Lost Girl fans will know as Anna Silk’s sword double) choreographed the more violent moments, as the temporary facade of the couple’s perfect world crumbles in the face of jealousy and distrust.

The sleek beauty of Todd and Kali’s modern reno of an old home mirrors the toxicity that lies beneath the exterior of their relationship. Once a mess of a place, they renovated it themselves with the help of Todd’s architect friend and transformed it into their dream home, a high point of pride and satisfaction. Kali retreats up the stairs to their finished attic space with Todd’s cell in an effort to keep him from calling his parents – and her jealousy is pricked to life when she snoops through his messages. And later in the play, the unfinished cellar – a crawl space, really – is evoked as they crouch in front of the kitchen island, along with horrific things both hidden in the past and glimpsed in the future.

Shaw and Young are magnificent as Kali and Todd, executing the intricate movement, dance and fight choreography with apparent ease – and breathing a complex life of love, humour, raw passion, co-dependency and vulnerability into these characters.

As the house lights come back up, the audience files out to “#1 Crush” by Garbage (which some will recognize from the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann’s film William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet) – a song that perfectly matches the beautiful and terrible life dance we’ve just witnessed between these two characters.

Stockholm runs in the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space until June 3, so you best get on it before it’s gone.

For more info on Seventh Stage Theatre, check out their website: www.seventhstageproductions.com/theatre

For details and reservations info, please visit the Nightwood Theatre website: http://www.nightwoodtheatre.net/index.php/whats_on/stockholm